Reflections on Kathryn Davis ’28
I was saddened to learn that Kathryn Wasserman Davis ’28 passed away this morning. When I first met Kathryn, I was immediately struck by her quick wit, her charm, and her undying devotion for Wellesley. Like so many, I was inspired by her vim and vigor—and this was when she was 102 years old! Our world has been forever changed because of Kathryn.
Kathryn was the quintessential Wellesley woman—she approached life with selflessness and grace, zest and zeal. She had an insatiable appetite for learning that extended well past her 90s. At age 91, she took up kayaking and paddled her way through the Hudson River and the coast of Maine and nearby lakes. At age 96, only after a hip fracture prevented her from playing tennis, she began painting. Not only did she learn the art, she mastered it. Dozens of her paintings filled her home in Hobe Sound, Florida, and she exhibited her lovely work over the last 10 years.
There are so many stories that exemplify her marvelous personality—and her love of Wellesley. In this blog, I will share some of those stories. I hope that the Wellesley community also will share their own memories and stories of Kathryn with one another, and through the comments section on this blog.
When I first met Kathryn, I was struck by her charm and graciousness. The second time I saw Kathryn, I understood how impressive she truly was. In 2008, at the dinner celebrating my inauguration as president of Wellesley, Kathryn gave a speech and delighted the audience with her kind and welcoming words. But it turned out that she wasn’t a scheduled speaker. Surprising me and all those who had organized the event, she got up to the podium and spoke extemporaneously and quite eloquently.
Kathryn loved Wellesley with all of her heart. “Wellesley to me was heaven on earth,” she often said of her time as a student here. Wellesley was already a part of Kathryn even before she entered as a first year student in 1924. Her aunt Cora graduated in 1895, her mother, Edith, in 1897, her sister Margaret in 1922, and her cousin Agnes in 1924.
At 106 years old, she was our oldest known living alumna, and she was also one of our most loyal. For nearly 85 years, Kathryn was committed to higher education and service to her community. A Trustee Emerita (she served on the Wellesley College Board of Trustees from 1984 to 2002), she was a longtime volunteer for our Office for Resources and was actively involved in the Alumnae Association for many years. While living in Switzerland in the early 1970s, Kathryn started the Wellesley Club of Switzerland and hosted an annual luncheon for Wellesley students and alumnae in the area. At her most recent reunion, her 80th in 2008, she received the Alumnae Association’s Syrena Stackpole Award to honor her longstanding devotion to her alma mater. I know she very much looked forward to attending her 85th reunion this June, having solidified many months ago her plans to attend.
Through her philanthropy, Kathryn had a lasting impact on Wellesley, having contributed more than $50 million to the College over her lifetime. Her incredible generosity, and that of her late husband, Shelby Cullom Davis, established the Davis Museum and Cultural Center in 1993. Her philanthropy also supported many other pursuits in which she believed, including financial aid for students, global education initiatives, professorships in Asian Studies and Slavic Studies, and restoring the campus landscape. Specifically, her vision enabled Wellesley to return Alumnae Valley—which was a parking lot at the time—to its original beauty, with the creation of the Davis Parking Facility in 2005.
My visits with Kathryn—in Maine, in Florida, and in New York—were always memorable. The first time I went to her house for dinner she had invited another scientist so I “would have someone to talk to.” She hoped I wouldn’t mind. The “other” scientist was Jim Watson (of Watson and Crick). I didn’t mind.
The last time she came to campus, this past September, she insisted on taking a boat ride on Lake Waban. I will forever hold in my mind the image of Kathryn—a beautiful 105-year-old woman—enjoying a glorious fall day on Lake Waban. Last summer, I had the pleasure of having lunch with her at her home in Maine. She regaled me with stories of her classes and her beloved Claflin Hall. She told the most wonderful stories—from her time at Wellesley and her experiences and travels around the world—each complete with incredible detail and color.
Indeed, Kathryn’s life was filled with interesting experiences around the world, beginning at a young age. In her New Year’s letter to me, she commented that 2012 was perhaps the first time in 100 years that she did not travel internationally. Kathryn’s love of travel is attributable to her mother. As Kathryn explained in 1988 in an interview to document her oral history for the College, “My father always wanted to buy a summer home where the family would settle for the summer. Mother said, ‘Oh, no. We have to travel every summer and show the children the world.’” After World War I, the family began traveling to Europe in the summers.
Kathryn subsequently spent the vast majority of her life traveling abroad. In 1929, she took her first trip to Russia, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains on horseback with a group including her sister that was led by an anthropology professor—an adventure in which their food and horses were stolen by bandits. “We ate wild berries for breakfast and spit-roasted mountain goat for dinner,” she told The Moscow Times in 2002. “And I couldn’t have been happier.” Kathryn subsequently returned to Russia more than 30 times, including a trip in 1997 with Marshall Goldman, the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor Emeritus, who led a group from Beijing to Moscow, by way of Mongolia and Siberia via train.
That first trip to Russia in 1929 had a profound influence on Kathryn, broadening her view of life and the world, she said. After that trip, Kathryn, an English major at Wellesley, subsequently earned a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of Geneva. Her PhD thesis was on The Soviets at Geneva, in which she correctly predicted—although controversially at the time—that the Soviet Union would join the League of Nations.
Kathryn was a self-described pacifist, as evidenced by the 100 Projects for Peace that she established on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2007. (The Projects for Peace initiative, open to students around the country, funds creative student initiatives throughout the world focused on building peace in the 21st century. Every year since 2007, Wellesley students have been awarded funding for their peace projects.) In 2007, when she received the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, Kathryn spoke about the need to build peace around the world: “My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature. But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature,” she said. “My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, and therefore let us take advantage of today to be as useful as possible.”
Kathryn’s commitment to peace, justice, and art can be seen in her most recent gift to the College. This spring, a “Davis Peace Project” banner will be installed on an exterior wall of the Davis Museum portraying a dove and an olive branch. That banner will complement Charming, an indoor installation of origami hummingbirds—symbolizing creatures who make change through tenacity and persistence, little by little—that now hangs in the Davis. It is a most fitting gift from Wellesley’s own hummingbird, as Kathryn referred to herself.
Ever the graceful Wellesley woman, Kathryn always kept an open mind about people. Even when she disagreed with someone, she had the ability—and the willingness—to see and appreciate their point of view, always maintaining an air of dignity and respect. That openness translated to Kathryn’s personal philosophy. As she would say: keep listening, keep learning, keep loving, keep laughing, and keep making new friends.
Through her diplomacy, her charm, her philanthropy, and her commitment to the causes in which she believed, Kathryn made this world a better place. Wellesley, and the world, has lost a friend, a model citizen, and a champion for peace.
We should all be so fortunate to live a life as full as Kathryn’s.